Thousands of North Korean refugees are working as sex slaves in China under threat of being returned should Chinese authorities catch them, the US ambassador for fighting international slavery said yesterday.
After two days of talks with Chinese officials, John Miller, director of the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said many victims of the modern-day slave trade were women and girls forced into prostitution or marriage.
"Sometimes they're trafficked out of North Korea. North Korean officials are complicit," Miller told reporters. "If they are caught by the Chinese authorities, they are sent back to North Korea and punished."
China views North Korean refugees on its territory as illegal economic migrants who should be sent back.
But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the US and other countries have pressed China to treat at least some of them as legitimate refugees who should not be repatriated.
Miller said there were no accurate statistics of the number of North Korean women forced into prostitution or marriage in China.
But he said charities and church groups working in the region estimate between 30 percent and half of the many thousands of North Koreans who cross into China every year are "trafficking victims," forced or tricked into slavery.
Chinese press reports on the cross-border trade have said North Korean women are sold to Chinese brokers for several hundred to a thousand dollars each.
The repatriated women can face prison sentences of five years or longer, or even execution. But most often they are held for several months in forced labor camps, London-based organization Anti-Slavery International said in a recent report.
"There are countless testimonies of beatings, torture, degrading treatment, and even forced abortions and infanticide from those who have escaped," the report said of these camps.
Most of the North Korean women caught in slave trafficking were forced into marriages with Chinese farmers, the report said.
China's growing population imbalance means many poor farmers cannot easily find brides. The women often face abuse and beatings but several interviewed said "their current situation is better than risking repatriation or starvation," the report said.
In related news, activists at a Seoul conference on human rights in the North repeated calls on China not to send North Korean defectors back home, where they can face harsh punishment.
They also pressed the US to accept refugees.
Michael Horowitz, senior adviser to the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said the US has to push China to change its stance on defectors by threatening sanctions.
"China must be forced to choose between supporting this regime and sending those refugees to death camps in violation of law and good relations with the US," Horowitz said.
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US blasts North Korea on human rights